The probe was prompted by a interview, published on the website Current Time, in which Vsevolod Shurkhay, a neurosurgeon at the institute, said that doctors lacked personal protection equipment. As part of the probe, Shurkhay himself was summoned to the prosecutor’s office for questioning.
According to Current Time, Shurkhay sent a written request to institute management, asking them to solve the problem, but they advised him not to “escalate” the situation. It was then that the doctor contacted supervisory bodies and journalists.
According to Agora’s legal aid headquarters, on March 25, Shurkhay was asked by the institute’s head physician to give a written explanation for the Current Time article. The human rights organization writes that Shurkhay was given to understand he could be dismissed for washing the institute’s “dirty linen” in public and reproached for immediately contacting the media.
Translated by the Russian Reader. You can read all my posts about the coronavirus epidemic in Russia here.
A screenshot of the Ekho Moskvy website, showing the results of an online survey conducted on January 3, 2020. When asked “Does the abundance of migrants on Red Square on New Year’s bother you?” 68% of those who voted said yes, 26% said no, and 6% were undecided.
On January 3, the website of radio station Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) asked its audience, allegedly liberal, whether it was bothered by the abundance of migrants on Red Square during New Year’s celebrations. Almost 4,000 people voted over the next twenty-four hours, with seventy percent of them answering “Yes.” Although the survey lacks sociological representativity and is a purely rhetorical device, it does enable us to raise the question of whether immigration could be an important item on the social and political agenda in Russia in 2020. In my short comment, I will first analyze the wording of Ekho Moskvy’s question and show how it was manipulative before trying to link this story to recent trends in the debate on immigration and, finally, forecasting how the topic could evolve in the coming year.
The question (“Does the abundance of migrants on Red Square on New Year’s bother you?”) already sends a specific message that would have been decipherable by everyone who decided to take part in the survey. Instead of the neutral “How do you feel about…” the people who phrased the question immediately introduced the negative assessment implied by “bother,” inviting readers not to voice their opinions, but to agree or disagree with a stated stance in the absence of alternatives. The vagueness of the word “abundance”—how can it be quantified? what number or percentage is enough to render a verdict?—leaves a lot to the respondent’s imagination.
The notion of “migrants” is typically manipulative, of course. Who did the people who phrased the question have in mind? People who had come to Moscow from other parts of Russia, such as the Moscow Region and the Caucasus? Tourists from China and Italy? Migrant laborers from Ukraine and Central Asia? Formally speaking, all of them are migrants, and each of these groups could irritate the average Muscovite for some reason. In other words, “migrants” is a term that is already chockablock with stereotypes and laden with negativity.
Finally, the phrase “on Red Square on New Year’s” connotes a symbolic, even sacred time and space in which “migrants” are a priori contrasted as something alien, even if “migrants” also enjoy celebrating New Year’s and regard Red Square as a landmark in their own biographies, for example, as immigrants from the former Soviet hinterlands. Muscovites themselves might not even go to Red Square but, in keeping with the conceptual framework suggested by Ekho Moskvy’s survey, they should protect it from imaginary others.
Why, then, did Ekho Moskvy have to ask its listeners and readers a question about immigration in such a manipulative and negative form, putting it on a par with the current dramatic events in the Middle East? I am least inclined to imagine it was a deliberate conspiracy in service of a hidden agenda. It was, rather, a spontaneous reaction, a playing along with sentiments popular among listeners that encourage them to visit the radio station’s website. And indeed we have seen signs in the past year that the topic of immigration has returned to the public agenda. After a surge in interest in immigration in 2013, during the Moscow mayoral election, and the highest recorded levels of antipathy to migrants, the topic of immigration gradually faded from the public eye, overshadowed by the economic crisis and the war in Ukraine.
According to polls conducted in the summer of 2019 by Levada Center, these numbers started to increase again after a twofold decline in previous years. A similar trend (among far-right groups and ideologues) has been noted by analysts at the SOVA Center, who write that the summer and autumn of 2019 saw a “partial revival of the traditional anti-immigrant discourse.”
Will the topic of immigration continue to be raised in various opinion polls, widening the debate to include, besides nationalists, liberals, leftists, and conservatives? The image of so-called aliens and others has always been an important constituent of self-identification, a building block of how we define ourselves, an obligatory component of the most varied ideologies. Given the recent warming (albeit not full normalization) in relations between Russia and Ukraine, the resulting vacancy for the role of aliens has to be filled by someone else, and “migrants” (less real than imaginary) are a strong and familiar irritant and a convenient tool for skewing public opinion.
Provided that a greater number of parties and new political figures are allowed to participate, the upcoming electoral cycle, which should end with elections to the State Duma in autumn of 2021, also creates conditions for both the opposition and pro-Kremlin groups to ratchet up the topic of immigration. The example of politicians in Europe and America who parlayed criticism of immigration policies into success at the ballot box is fresh in everyone’s mind.
Such conditions and examples are not sufficient, however, to revive the debate on immigration in the Russian political arena. The “reconciliation” with Ukraine and western countries may prove unstable and temporary. The Kremlin might choose to keep a tight rein on the elections and thus find it disadvantageous to let its opponents have a go at the topic of immigration. Despite the growth in anti-immigration rhetoric noted by pollsters and analysts in 2019, I would nevertheless cautiously suggest that immigration won’t dominate the political and public agenda in the new year. Nor will it fade away, however. It will continue to fester, with parties as various as the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda and the radio station Ekho Moskvy fanning the embers. It will thus remain a political backup weapon that could go off at any moment.
Opposition shaman Alexander Gabyshev was detained while walking to Moscow to exorcise Vladimir Putin. Photo courtesy of yakutia.info
Pavel Aptekar Vedomosti
September 20, 2019
The arrest and possible criminal prosecution of self-declared shaman Alexander Gabyshev, who was en route to Moscow to exorcise Vladimir Putin, whom the shaman had dubbed a demon, is less a consequence of Gabyshev’s involvement in protest rallies and more the outcome of a serious attitude toward superstitions and occult practices on the part of high government officials and the security forces.
On Thursday, Gabyshev’s traveling companions reported that security services officers, armed with machine guns and billy clubs, had raided their tent camp on the border between Buryatia and Irkutsk region, where the shaman was spending the night. The siloviki detained Gabyshev and spirited him away on a police bus that took off towards Ulan-Ude.
In the afternoon, the Buryatia Interior Ministry reported, without naming a name [sic], that Gabyshev had been detained by order of a police investigator on suspicion of his having committed a crime in Yakutia, and he would be extradited to Yakutsk. According to sources cited by news agencies and TV Rain, Gabyshev could be charged with extremism.
Gabyshev’s trek to Moscow had already been marred by the arrest of his traveling companions, which partly sparked the unrest in Ulan-Ude that led to a protest rally at which protesters demanded a recount of the recent mayoral election in the city and generated a tactical alliance between shamanists and the Communists.
In our age of smartphones and supercomputers, the attempt to exorcise demons from the Kremlin seems like a joke, just like the possible charge of extremism against Gabyshev: it transpires that occult rituals are regarded as real threats to the Russian state.
We should not be surprised by this, however. Many of our fellow Russians have lost faith in the rational foundations of the world order and the state system. The paucity of scientific explanations in Russian society has been compensated by superstitions and conspiracy theories, which are broadcast by national TV channels, among others.
But that is only half the problem. Such explanations of reality and occult methods are widespread among the highest ranks of the security services, that is, among people who have the ear of the country’s leaders. Cheka officers were intensely interested in occultism in the 1920s and 1930s, an interest shared, later, by the NKVD and the Nazi secret services.
In post-Soviet Russia, arcane practices were promoted by the late General Georgy Rogozin, who served as deputy chief of the president’s security service.
“There are powerful techniques that reveal psychotronics. This is the science of controlling the brain. […] In order to see the trajectory of a person’s life, their ups and downs, it is enough to know when they were born,” Rogozin told Komsomolskaya Pravda in an interview.
In December 2006, General Boris Ratnikov of the Federal Protective Service (FSO) told Rossiiskaya Gazeta that the secret services had tapped into the subconscious of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and detected a “pathological hatred of Slavs” and dreams of controlling Russia. In 2015, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev reproduced this as Albright’s “statement” that Siberia and the Far East did not belong to Russia.
We can only guess what threats the current security forces were able to “scan” (concoct, that is) in Gabyshev’s subconscious.
“Alternative” excavations at Sandarmokh. Photo by Irina Tumakova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta
Sifting through History: The “Alternative” Excavations at Sandarmokh Are Meant to Shift the Public’s Attention from Great Terror Victims to WWII Casualties
Pavel Aptekar Vedomosti
August 20, 2019
The ongoing excavations by the Russian Military History Society (RVIO) at the Sandarmokh site in [Russian] Karelia, where political prisoners were shot during the Great Terror, reflects the desire of Russian officials to switch the public’s attention to the Second World War.
In August, RVIO employees and a Defense Ministry search battalion resumed digging at Sandarmokh. Karelian Culture Minister Alexei Lesonen said the objective was to “separate artifacts having to do with different layers of history and different circumstances.”
It is a matter of words matching deeds. In 1997, local historian Yuri Dmitriev discovered the mass graves of people shot by the NKVD in 1937–1938. Thanks to Dmitriev’s efforts, Sandarmokh became a symbol of the Great Terror.
International Memorial Society board member Sergei Krivenko puts a number on it: archival documents have confirmed that over 6,100 people were shot and buried at Sandarmokh during the Great Terror.
The RVIO’s August–September 2018 expedition turned up the remains of five people. Historian Sergei Verigin said they corroborated the hypothesis about Soviet POWS because the executed people had not been stripped before they were shot and foreign-made shell casings were found next to them. This proves nothing, however. The NKVD used foreign-made weapons when it executed its prisoners [22,000 Polish officers and members of the Polish intelligentsia] at Katyn, nor have the RVIO established when exactly the people whose remains they found were killed.
The RVIO did not respond to our request to comment on the claim that the people shot and buried at Sandarmokh were “alleged victims.” They keep digging In early August, the remains of five more people were found.
Memorial has demanded an end to the excavations, fearing the mass graves will be disturbed. Archaeologists have also sounded a warning because the traces of dwelling sites used by prehistoric people have been found at Sandarmokh as well and they could be damaged.
The problem, however, is not that artifacts could get mixed up. The problem is there is no comparison between the maximum possible number of Soviet POWs executed and buried at Sandarmokh, as estimated by the Karelian Culture Ministry, and the confirmed numbers of victims of Stalin’s terror campaign who are buried there: 500 versus over 6,100.
The digs at Sandarmokh are a clumsy attempt by Russian officials to alter the meaning of the memorial site and rewrite the past with shovels. More importantly, officials want to juggle the numbers of victims and thus gaslight the Russian public.
Translated by the Russian Reader
Without Fathers, a video made by Anna Artemieva and Gleb Limansky, and published by Novaya Gazeta on August 7, 2017. The annotation reads, “The orphans of Sandarmokh remember their executed relatives. Historian Yuri Dmitriev did not attend memorial day ceremonies there for the first time in twenty years. He is on trial, charged with ‘manufacturing child pornography.'”
As the bombs rain down on Eastern Ghouta, we learn what at least one Russian sports expert deems “genocide”: the disqualification of Russian athletes from international competitions for violating international anti-doping rules. Unfortunately, I am sure he is not alone in his cruel, rampantly nationalistic views. TRR
“Помните, что творилось во время Олимпиады в Бразилии? Клишину, которая живет в США, пустили, а не пускали только тех, кто живет в России. Или Исинбаева в Рио – на дату начала соревнований к ней персонально нет никаких претензий, а ее не пускают. Как и других, которые даже по правилам ВАДА были чистые. Это же форма геноцида. Реагировать следовало по линии МИДа. По международной правовой линии, а не только в спортивные и гражданские суды обращаться”.
“Do you remember what went on at the Olympics in Brazil? [Russian long jumper Darya]Klishina, who lives in the US, was allowed to compete. Only those who live in Russia were not allowed to compete. Or what about [Russian pole vaulter Yelena]Isinbayeva in Rio? On the date when the competition started there were no grievances against her personally, but she was disqualifed, like others who were clean even under WADA’s rules. This is a form of genocide. The [Russian] Foreign Ministry should have reacted. We should have reacted in terms of international law instead of just appealing to sports and civil courts.”
— Instruct the Russian Federal Sport Ministry and the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAN) to propose scientifically sound terminology for doping in sport for inclusion in a new edition of the International Convention against Doping in Sport.
“Inhumane, Wrong, but Nothing Can Be Done”: Migrant Workers on Clashes with the Russian National Guard in Tomsk
Roman Chertovskikh Takie Dela
January 11, 2018
The Russian National Guard dispersed a crowd of migrant workers in Tomsk on January 9. Over 2,000 foreigners had paralyzed the work of the immigration center and refused to leave, after which security forces used cattle prods and batons against them. Why did it happen?
In 2018, Tomsk Region has received a quota of only a thousand temporary residence permits. Yet the permit is issued only once annually, setting off a brouhaha among foreigners. The queue for those applying for the permit formed on January 2. Eight hundred people were on the list, and they checked in every day. On the day the permits were to be issued, a huge crowd had gathered at the entrance to the immigration center, located on the Irkutsk Highway, by six in the morning. The queue included students at Tomsk universities and workers alike.
The immigration center opened at nine, but work ground to a halt at eleven-thirty. Having serviced only three hundred people, the center’s employees stopped seeing any more clients and declared an emergency. The Russian National Guardsmen and OMON riot cops who arrived at the scene pushed the foreigners back and blocked the entrance to the building.
“Riot Cops Disperse Mob of Migrant Workers in Tomsk with Cattle Prods.” Video published on YouTube, January 8, 2018 [sic], by vtomske
One Center Instead of Numerous Local Federal Migration Service Offices
Most of migrant workers consider policy makers in the presidential administration responsible for the incident. Whereas last year foreigners were served by various local offices of the Federal Migration Service (FMS), as of this year all of Tomsk Region [the sixteenth largest region in Russia, although not all of its land mass is habitable—TRR] is served by one center.
“Since the ninth [of January] I have been busy running round to various government offices, trying to find someone who could help me and other students. I have so far struck out. I have been trying to get a temporary residence permit for four years running. I always encountered queues and crowding, but this was the first time I witnessed such a nightmare,” says Günel, a Kazakhstani citizen and second-year grad student at Tomsk State University.
According to Günel, it is wrong to issue a thousand permits at the same time on the same day, although the young woman is not eager to condemn the actions of the police.
“I cannot say anything bad about the Russian National Guard and OMON riot police acted. They were doing their jobs, after all. I saw the cattle prods, and I saw them being used, but I did not notice the police beating anyone up, as has been written about a lot in the media instead of analyzing the causes of the situation. I was not in the crowd. To break through to the front door, you would have had to stop at nothing, pushing women and old men aside. It’s also hard to blame the people who generated the crush. They had been waiting for their permits for a year, and some of them had waited longer. There were young students in the queue, and ethnic Russians who had decided to return to their historic homeland. There were also a lot of people from other countries who need a temporary residence permit to avoid paying for a work permit every month. Basically, they could not care less about citizenship.”
Günel argues that a thousand temporary resident permits is much too few for Tomsk, so permits are obtained through personal connections from year to year. She does not believe it is possible to issue a thousand permits in two hours.
Unjustifiably Small Quotas
Seil, a Tomsk State University anthropology grad student from Kyrgyzstan and employee of the company Immigrant Service, argues the clashes were the consequence of administrative errors caused by the peculiarities of the quotas. Temporary residence permits are issued only in keeping with the demands of the labor market. If Tomsk Region needs a thousand foreign workers, it does not matter how many people come to the region over and above the thousand-person quota, and how many of these people are university students.
According to Seil, numerous immigrants, in fact, work in the city of Tomsk and Tomsk Region illegally, without a legal permit.
“Then why, I wonder, are we talking about the need for foreign labor and setting quotas on the number of laborers at the same time? Everyone knows the actual circumstances are extremely different from the circumstances on paper, but no one tries to change the status quo,” Seil says, outraged. “Unfortunately, we have to follow the regulations. It is inhumane, wrong, and ugly, but if 1,001 people come and apply for temporary residence permits when the quota is 1,000, nothing can be done for the ‘superfluous’ person.”
Seil argues it is not profitable for Russian state agencies to issue temporary residence permits, but those who have work permits are forced to pay 3,500 rubles [approx. 50 euros] a month in Tomsk Region.
“It is unprofitable, of course, for the state to lose this source of revenue. Tomsk Region makes several million [rubles?] a year from the tax on the work permit alone,” says Seil. “I’m certain that if the quotas were set so the numbers reflected the circumstances in the region, there would not be a huge difference between supply and demand, and emergencies would be prevented. Something similar happened last year. People nearly broke the door down, there was such a brouhaha.”
Seil condemns the actions taken by employees of the immigration center.
“Maybe an emergency really did occur, but why was it necessary to close the doors at 11:30 a.m.? They could have tried to resolve the difficulties. Employees at such institutions like to boast that if closing time is 6 p.m., they won’t work a minute later than 6 p.m. Sure, they wear uniforms [i.e., because the FMS was dissolved, and a new immigration entity was established within the Interior Ministry, that is, within the Russian national police force—TRR], but why treat people that way? They could have worked at least another ninety minutes, until lunch time, in order to take the situation down a notch.”
Quotas have been reduced nationwide in 2018, not only in Tomsk Region. In November 2017, the Russian government approved a quota that provided for only 90,360 temporary residence permits, which was 19,800 fewer permits than were allowed the previous year. In 2016, however, the quota was 125,900 temporary residence permits, and in 2017 it was 110,160.
According to a prognosis by Rosstat, Russia’s able-bodied population will have decreased by seven million people by 2025. A reduction like this cannot be compensated only by increasing the Russian population’s labor productivity and economic activity, so an influx of immigrants is necessary for economic growth.
Vladimir Putin Explains How to Debate the 1917 Revolution Delovoi Peterburg
November 3, 2017
Discussion of the 1917 Revolution should be based on facts and documents, President Vladimir Putin emphasized in his greeting to participants of international events occasioned by the Russian Revolution’s centenary.
“The turbulent, dramatic events of 1917 are an inalienable, complicated part of our history. The revolution had a tremendous impact on the evolution of Russia and the world, and it largely defined the political, economic, and social picture of the twentieth centure,” noted the president, as quoted by TASS.
The president also said the interest of public figures, scholars, and the media in a deep and comprehensive interpretation of the era was legitimate.
“Yet I am convinced that even the most heated polemics must be based on facts and docoments, on an objective and respectful attitude to the past. I hope that your meetings, which shall bring together people from many countries, will contribute to this constructive discussion,” Putin said.
Earlier, Rossotrudnichestvo (Russian Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation) reported it would be holding various events commemorating the centenary of the October Revolution at Russian Culture Houses in over eighty countries.
“Russian Culture Houses in more than 80 countries [will] host exhibitions, science conferences [sic] and seminars, which aim on delivering an objective approach to historical events to foreign audience,” the agency said.
Attack of the Bio Samples How Conspiracy Theories Flourish
Vladimir Ruvinsky Vedomosti
October 31, 2017
The president made his remarks at a meeting of the Human Rights Council. They were seemingly spontaneous. Council member Igor Borisov had complained to the president that, according to his information, certain people were using video surveillance systems in Russia to gather images of Russians for unknown purposes. That was nothing, responded Putin. Bio samples from different ethnic groups and regions were also being “deliberately and professionally” collected nationwide. The question was why.
The story took on even more dramatic overtones when the president’s press secretary tried to explain it.
According to Dmitry Peskov, “Certain emissaries conduct such work: employees of nongovernmental organizations and other entities.”
The Russian secret services had reported them to the president, Peskov claimed.
But you did not need the secret services to tell you this. The notion of “bio samples” is broad, including, for example, blood tests, which have been done in Russia for approximately 150 years, and performed by Russians and foreigners alike. Obviously, Putin had in mind genetic samples. Methods for rapidly deciphering DNA sequences were discovered in 1977. DNA became a research subject at approximately the same time in the Soviet Union, and nowadays genetic research is carried out worldwide. Genes and genetics are global phenomena, and the DNA of all human beings is 99% identical.
There are two main areas of research. Medical genetics, in which individual samples from sick and healthy people are studied to determine, in particular, predispositions to certain diseases, and population genetics, which studies samples from different ethnic groups in order to reconstruct the history of peoples [sic], notes biologist Mikhail Gelfand. Research objectives can overlap. Apparently, Putin had population genetics in mind, but data has long been collected in Russia for both medical genetic and population genetic research. This work has been done by pharmaceutical companies (as part of clinical trials), medical centers (as part of genetic counseling), and researchers (as part of their search for the genes that trigger diseases).
Russia has been actively involved in international genome projects. In 2015, the results of a multi-year study of the gene pool of Slavic and Baltic peoples were published. The study was done by Russian and international geneticists, and one question they explored was who the Slavs were. In the same year, the Genome Russian Project, supported by Putin, was launched. Its aim is to create an open-accesss database containing anonymous genetic information about 3,000 men and women, the indigenous people of Russia’s various regions. The project has been coordinated by an American, Stephen O’Brien. There have been no reports the secret service has any gripes with the project.
Perhaps it is a commercial conflict. Valery Ilyinsky, director of the company Genotek, told RIA Novosti that two research centers in Moscow and Petersburg had been collecting bio samples from different Russian ethnic groups and sending them to colleagues in the US for research studies, but these studies could have bee done in Russia as well.
In the absence of a foreword such as I have just provided (I wonder how much the president was told), what Putin said sounded ominous, of course. Ignorance generates feelings of fears and danger. It is one step from there to conspiracy theories about genetic weapons and a future biological war that would threaten to destroy Russians. (According to Gelfand, even theoretically, it would be possible to devise a genetic weapon only against an ethnic group that had been living in isolation for a thousand years, which does not apply to Russians.) Of course it was wrong to claim that Russians were being targeted for biological war, stipulated Federation Council member Franz Klintsevich, but one must be ready.
This was not the first time the president has been sold a pack of imaginary threats. In 2007, FSB director Nikolai Patrushev reported to Putin that bio samples were being sent from Russia to the US. They were being used, allegedly, in a program for developing a “genetic bioweapon” targeting Russians. Patrushev claimed the weapon would be capable of damaging the health of ethnic Russians to point of killing them or rendering them infertile (as reported by Kommersant). Consequently, the Russian customs service banned the export of all bio samples, including hair, blood, and clinical analyses, which threatened the lives of thousands of Russians, who needed to be paired with bone marrow donors in German clinics. The ban was lifted after public protests, but the notion has proven tenacious.
Central Bank Says Russians Mistrust Low Inflation Figures
Yevgeny Kalyukov RBC
October 31, 2017
A survey conducted by the Central Bank of the Russian Federation has shown that most Russians had noticed a price rise for goods that, according to official statistics, had become cheaper.
Most Russians do not believe Russia’s inflation rate has slowed to 3% per annum, according to the Central Bank’s report. Commissioned by the bank, the survey showed 56% of Russians were certain that by the end of 2017 the total rise in consumer prices would be “considerably higher than 4%,” and 75% of respondents claimed that over the previous twelve months prices had risen no more slowly or even more quickly than earlier.
“People are not yet ready to believe inflation really has slowed to such a low level. A considerable role in this discrepancy has also been played by the volatility of prices for individual goods and services,” the Central Bank report says.
Zoya Kuzmina, head of the review group in the monetary policy department at the Central Bank, noted that Russians’ subjective perception of changes in prices of goods they purchase regularly was at odds with official statistics.
“In reality, sugar prices have decreased nearly by 50% on the year. Fruits and vegetables have also become cheaper, while prices for tea and coffee have increased somewhat (by around 2%). But respondents said prices for all these goods had increased,” Kuzmina explained.
According to Kuzmina, the survey’s outcome confirmed Russians “would need a little more time to get used to low inflation.”
According to the Central Bank’s reports, inFom’s October 2017 assessment of Russians’ inflationary expectations for the next twelve months had risen to 9.9%. The Central Bank, however, was confident that conditions for decreasing the populace’s inflationary expectations would emerge as inflation became entrenched at around 4%.
In early August 2017, Alexander Morozov, director of the Central Bank’s research and forecasting department, advised Russians to think less about rapid price growth, since it was just such sentiments that facilitated increased inflation.
Earlier, Central Bank chair Elvira Nabiullina warned that excessively low inflation could generate new difficulties for Russia’s “emerging economy.”
See my previous posts on the subject of official economic statistics in Russia:
The Great October Conspiracy Conspiracy theories were as useful in 1917 as they are one hundred years later
Fyodor Krasheninnikov Vedomosti
October 31, 2017
A hundred years ago, Russia stood on the treshold of the Bolshevik coup and the subsequent long-term dictatorship of the Communist Party. How did it happen that society could summon up no forces to stop it?
If you believe conspiracy theorists, in 1917, the forces of darkness managed twice in a single year, in February and October, to pull off the same trick: to hatch a plot and overthrow the existing regime. This take on what happened a hundred years ago has become all but official, and on the anniversary of the Bolshevik coup we will be treated to it again and again.
The story of German agents plotting against Russia was dreamt up a hundred years ago. After the July Days of 1917, a brief revolt in Petrograd against the Provisional Government, an idea emerged in the depths of the counterintelligence service, which had been disfigured by revolutionary purges. The Bolsheviks would be declared German intelligence agents, society would be incited against them, and counterintelligence could take the gloves off. Yet no serious evidence of the charges was presented, and consequently the attempt to save the crumbling Kerensky regime by telling a lie dealt a blow to the regime itself.
After the Bolsheviks came to power and did everything they did, the story about German spies took on a life of its own, eventually fusing with the monarchist theory that Freemasons had organized the February Revolution.
Conspiracy theories are equally useful to the authorities in 1917 and in 2017 for an obvious reason: it lets them off the hook for the state of the nation. Economic downturns, foreign policy failures, and popular discontent are all ascribed to outside forces and their domestic agents. When they turn the talk to spies and conspiraces, the powers that be make their lives easier, for inflating spy mania, and encouraging people to tighten their belts and rally round the current regime, whatever it is like, is much simpler than improving the economic and sociopolitical circumstances at home and thereby raising the popularity of the regime itself.
The main lesson to be drawn from a thoughtful reflection on the events of 1917 is that the government is primarily to blame for revolutions and coups, because it generates the prerequisites for its successful overthrow. We can endlessly mourn the last tsar and his family, but the truth is that it was Nicholas II who brought things to the point where a huge empire collapsed in a matter of days for the most ridiculous reason, and the institution of the monarchy proved incapable of mobilizing its potential supporters to defend, if not the overthrown tsar himself, then at least the Romanov dynasty and the monarchical system.
By hemming and hawing, and proving incapable either of solving the most urgent economic problems or holding elections to the Constituent Assembly until state power had utterly collapsed, the Provisional Government did its all to pave the way for the Bolsheviks and their sympathizers to seize power.
No conspiracy hatched by agents could have led to the seizure of power in the vast country if the program and slogans of the Bolsheviks had not been popular, and they themselves had not been regarded as a force capable of introducing at least minimal order, launching urgent social reforms, and finally holding elections to the Constituent Assembly.
We now know that the Bolsheviks deceived the workers, peasants, and soldiers, while also failing to bring the country social justice, peace or prosperity. But as we look back a hundred years, we must judge the circumustances not from the perspective of what we know nowadays, but from the viewpoint of contemporaries of those events, who saw only growing chaos on all sides and took seriously the promises made by the Bolsheviks.
Fortunately, there is no war [sic], no “land question,” and nothing like the Bolshevik Party, with its radical leftist platform and readiness for violence nowadays, so direct comparisons are completely out of place. But attempts by the current regime to chalk up all its failures and all dissatisfaction with it to the baleful endeavors of foreign agents and fabled Russophobes do, indeed, evoke the saddest comparisons with the past.
Fyodor Krasheninnikov is a political scientist based in Yekaterinburg. Translated by the Russian Reader
“On the morning of February 23, the workers who had reported to the factories and shops of the Vyborg District gradually downed tools and took to the streets in crowds, thus voicing their protest and discontent over bread shortages, which had been particularly acutely felt in the above-named factory district, where, according to local police, many had not had any bread whatsoever in recent days.”
Thus read a report by agents of the Okhrana on the first day of a revolution that forever changed Russia, February 23, 1917 (March 8, New Style).
Revolutionary events such as the unrest in Petrograd, which the bewildered tsarist regime failed to put down, Nicholas II’s abdication on March 2 (15) at Dno Station near Pskov, and the establishment of the Provisional Government were recalled by contemporaries as happening so swiftly that they were unable to understand where Russia was headed so wildly and who would ultimately benefit from the changes. In February 1917, no one would have predicted that less than year later the Bolsheviks, a radical faction of the Social Democrats who had been on the sidelines of Russian politics, would emerge victorious, and Bolshevik leaders themselves were no exception in this regard.
But an enormous thirst for social justice was apparent from the revolution’s outset. Russia had emerged a quite leftist country. In the stormy months following the monarchy’s fall, it transpired that a definite majority of the country’s citizens sympathized with socialist ideas in one form or another. This was reflected in the outcome of the first free elections in Russian history, which took place in the autumn, when the chaos and anarchy on the war front and the home front were obvious. The newly elected Constituent Assembly was meant to define the country’s future. The Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), a party that had consistently, albeit violently and bloodily, waged war against the Romanov Dynasty, but in 1917 had favored peaceful but radical reforms, primarily land reforms, scored a convincing victory in the elections.
If the country had managed to slip past the threat of dictatorship, issuing from the left (the Bolsheviks) and from the right (radical counter-revolutonaries), the SRs would definitely have been post-revolutionary Russia’s ruling party for a time, argues Konstantin Morozov, a professor in the Institute of Social Sciences at RANEPA and convener of a permanent seminar, Leftists in Russia: History and Public Memory. In an interview with Radio Svoboda, he reflects on why this did not happen and what the SR alternative would have meant to Russia.
What was the condition of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in February 1917?
I would say the the party was then in a state of organization disarray. A considerable part of its prominent leaders was abroad, while the other part was in prison, exile, and penal servitude. It had to be rebuilt from scratch, and it was the SRs who had withdrawn from revolutionary work in 1905–07 but who basically returned to the party in 1917 who mainly engaged in the rebuilding. It was they who organized all the party’s new cells. There were also serious problems among the SRs in terms of internal rifts, especially due to differing viewpoints on the war. In March, the SRs began to rebuild themselves as a single party, which was implemented subsequently at the party’s 3rd Congress in May and June. In my view, this was a mistake, because the disagreements within the party were such that it could not function, manage itself, and take decisions as a united party. A factional struggle immediately ensued. Accordingly, it ended in collapse and the inability to hew to a single internal party policy in 1917.
Due to the first phase of their history, the SRs are associated in the popular imagination with violence and terrorism, which they had long renounced by 1917. What were the views of the SRs and the leaders on violence as a principle of political struggle? The baggage of their terrorist pasts still haunted Viktor Chernov and other party leaders, after all. How did they view it in 1917?
The Socialist Revolutionary Party discussed the question of terrorism throughout its existence. At first, such figures as Mikhail Gots and Viktor Chernov, who advocated he inclusion of terror in the party’s tactics, had the upper hand. But even then the SRs included people who advocated a popular, mass-based party, who favored propaganda and agitation among the peasantry and proletariat rather than focusing on terror. Their ideal was a grassroots socialist party, something like the Second International’s exemplary party, the German Social Democracy. It went from bad to worse. During the 1905 Revolution, the party’s grassroots combat squads were keen on practicing expropriation and many other things that party leaders dubbed “revolutionary hooliganism.” But after 1909–11, in the aftermath of Evno Azef‘s exposure, the voices of those SRs who had argued for giving up terrorism grew ever stronger. By February 1917, there was no longer any talk of terror. The last terrorist act carried out by SRs had taken place in 1911, after which they basically ceased engaging in terrorism. Terrorist sentiments in the Socialist Revolutionary Party were resurrected only in the wake of October 1917, especially after the Bolsheviks forcibly disbanded the Constituent Assembly. Even then, however, the greater number of SR leaders were against engaging in terrorism against the Bolsheviks. These SR leaders argued that first they had to get the grassroots on their side using the methods of a popular political party.
In his memoirs, Boris Savinkov quotes his friend Ivan Kalyayev, a member of the SR Combat Organization who killed the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. Kalyayev said that an SR without a bomb was not an SR. In reality, however, the majority of SRs were not involved in terrorism, and they would have disagreed with Kalyayev’s statement. It can be argued that use of terrorist tactics dealt a huge blow to the Socialist Revolutionaries who wanted the party to be a grassroots socialist party, a party that could carry out the will of Russia’s “triune working class” (in which the SRs included the proletariat, the working peasantry, and the working intelligentsia), and a party that proposed an evolutionary and democratic path to progress. Essentially, the SRs were not terrorists, of course. They had more or less given up terrorism in 1911. What mattered politically was that they were able to propose a program, both agrarian and federalist, that excited the sympathies of millions of people. By the autumn of 1917, the Socialist Revolutionary Party had more than a million members, while the Bolsheviks had only 350,000 members. Most important, the SRs won the elections to the Constituent Assembly, taking 41% of the vote.
So 1917 was the heyday for the SRs: they had a million members, and they won the elections to the Constituent Assembly. Why, ultimately, were they unable to take advantage of this? How did it happen that the SRs, despite their popularity, ceded power to the Bolsheviks later as well, despite attempts to the contrary? What predetermined their failure?
There are two sets of causes, objective and subjective, meaning, the mistakes made by the SRs themselves. What I think is fundamentally important is that it is extremely difficult to campaign for democratic reforms while a world war is underway. The fact that the Revolution took place during the First World War considerably predetermined the entire subsequent course of events. What is a world war? On the one hand, it involves a collapse in living standards and a aggravation of all the contradictions that have been accumulating in society over decades. On the other hand, it involves millions of people getting used to killing other people. This causes quite serious psychological changes. Extreme cruelty is combined with societal expectations pushed to the limit. These expectations had amassed to such an extent that in 1917 very many people wanted everything right away. Say, workers were no longer satisfied they had trade unions that the selfsame socialists would meet halfway. The workers wanted more. They wanted control and management of the factories. Practically, the Mensheviks and SRs could not take this step, because it would have led to serious industrial management issues. And the peasants wanted the land right away.
Here we turn to the mistakes made by the Socialist Revolutionaries. It was wrong to delay the convocation of the Constituent Assembly. Rather, it was wrong to go along with the liberals in the Provisional Government, the Kadets, who tried to postpone the Constituent Assembly any way they could. The liberals realized the leftist parties were stronger. They would have an outright majority in the Constituent Assembly, and consequently the peasantry and proletariat would get much of what they had been demanding. So the Kadets postponed the Constituent Assembly. That was a big, serious mistake.
Did the subjective factor play a role in the fact that the SRs failed? Let’s take a closer look. On the one hand, they were a party who styled themselves as the party of “land and freedom.” They were supported by the peasants. On the other hand, most SR leaders were members of the urban intelligentsia, not the salt of the earth. Did this contradiction factor in the SR electoral victory, but one in which their supporters were unwilling to secure their political power?
It was a lot more interesting than that. The program for socializing land ownership, advocated by the SRs, did not fall out of the sky. It was the outcome of quite serious work on the part of Populist economists and sociologists. It was revenge, if you like, for the failure of the “going to the people” campaign of 1874. In the aftermath, Populist economists, sociologists, and statisticians undertook a serious study of how peasants really lived. Within twenty or thirty years, they had figured out how the Russian peasantry really lived and what it wanted. The SRs based their own land socialization program on this research. Moreover, the SRs tended not to act like typical Russian intelligentsia, who often preferred philosophizing and imposing their own values on others. The SRs always tried to maintain feedback from the peasantry. I came across a quite curious document, a survey of sorts, which the SR Central Committee sent out in 1906 or 1907 to their local organizations, who were supposed to conduct this sociological survey, which asked peasants about their attitudes towards the regime, the army, and the clergy, and what they thought about the land, and how it should be distributed and managed. So it was no wonder the Socialist Revolutionary Party and their program, crafted over many years and through the efforts of many people, were seen by the peasants as their party and their program. On the other hand, there was a fairly powerful peasant lobby in the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The grassroots level of party activists and functionaries consisted of the so-called popular intelligentsia: physician’s assistants, schoolteachers, agronomists, surveyors, and foresters.
The problem was that the SRs did not fully take the peasantry’s interests into account in 1917. The revolutionary authorities were afraid to cede land to the peasants, because, on the one hand, the army’s quartermasters argued that the supply of provisions to the army would immediately collapse. On the other hand, there were fears that the rank-and-file soldiers, who were actually peasants dressed in greatcoats, would immediately desert the front and run home. Later, at the party’s Fourth Congress, Yevgeniya Ratner, a member of the SR Central Committee, put it quite aptly. She said that for the war’s sake, for the front’s sake, they were forced into compromises with the bourgeois parties and thus were unable to defend the class interests of the peasantry and workers, and this was their huge guilt in the face of history. According to Ratner, they should have convoked the Constituent Assembly two or three month earlier, i.e., in August or September 1917, and set out to implement agrarian reforms. We should point out that some of the SRs had wanted to do this: Chernov, for example, insisted on it. There were ideas for forming a socialist government. In September 1917, the SR Central Committee was leaning towards this option.
By a socialist governmment, do you mean one that would have included all leftist parties, including the Bolsheviks?
There were two options. The first was the most leftist and quite adventuresome, or at least it seemed that way to the SRs themselves. It was proposed by Maria Spiridonova. She suggested the SRs should simply take power and form their own homogeneous SR government.
Meaning, they should have done what the Bolsheviks did finally?
It’s another matter that the Bolsheviks immediately set about tweaking their slogans and their actions. That is, they adopted the same slogans, but over time all of this was transformed into something else entirely. But getting back to the SRs, the majority of them wanted a coalition socialist government that would have included the Bolsheviks. At some point after October 1917, there were negotiations between the Bolsheviks and the socialist parties about forming such a government, but without Lenin and Trotsky. It was Lenin who in many ways destroyed this option. Was the formation of a socialist government a viable alternative if it had been agreed, say, in September? I think so. This would have been followed by elections to the Constituent Assembly, where the socialist parties obtained a majority. The SRs took the top spot, and the Bolsheviks won 25%, meaning they were the second largest faction. Clearly, they would have carried a lot of weight, but this course of events would, nevertheless, have made it possible to maintain a parliamentary democracy. Obviously, after a while, the SRs would have lost power in elections, as we see in Europe, where power swings back and forth between the right and the left. There was a chance then to set up a similar scheme for changing power through democratic procedures, via parliament. After all, the Constituent Assembly was highly regarded in society. It had been elected in the first genuinely free ballot in Russian history.
You have already touched a bit on the period after the Bolshevik coup. But let’s go back in time a bit. One of the key figures of 1917 was Alexander Kerensky. How did the other SRs regard him, and what role did he ultimately play in the party’s history?
It’s a very good question, but before answering it, I would like to voice a more general consideration. You just mentioned the “Bolshevik coup.” On the one hand, centrist and Right SRs used the term themselves. On the other hand, the Left SRs and anarchists would later come to favor the concept of a single Russian revolution that lasted from 1917 to 1921. That is, they saw it as a unified revolutionary process in which there was February and October, followed by the civil war. Currently, this is more or less how it is discussed. Those who rejected the concept argued that October 1917 was not a revolution on its own terms, because it did not involve a spontaneous popular movement. Until the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks themselves would also often speak of a coup, of their coup. But some of the SRs, Mark Vishnyak, for example, rightly noted, in my opinion, that the events of October 1917 could be interpreted as a sort of “staff revolution,” organized from above. It was a symbiosis of a revolutionary process with traits of a coup. When someone simply speaks of a coup, that is not entirely right, because there was definitely support from the workers and soldiers. Besides, the word “coup” itself suggests an analogy with Latin American-style military coups. Whatever the case, we must continue to make sense of those events conceptually.
What if we return to Kerensky?
The SR leadership definitely saw Kerensky as a fellow traveler, as the term was then. He had been in the SR movement during the Revolution of 1905–07. Elected as an MP to the State Duma, he tried to unite different Populist groups. On the other hand, some SRs might have simply envied him. Kerensky was one of the most popular people in Russia. Socialist Revolutionaries who had spent years fighting in the underground and building the party, wound up in the background, while he, who had declared himself an SR, was regarded by society in 1917 as the most important SR. Chernov had harsh things to say about Kerensky. According to Chernov, Kerensky played a quite negative role in the Socialist Revolutionary Party, because he had almost no contact with the SR leadership and did not follow the Central Committee’s instructions. The Right SRs and right-centrists supported Kerensky, while the Left SRs tried to break with him. At the party’s Third Congress, in May and June 1917, the Left SRs sabotaged Kerensky’s election to the party’s Central Committee. He was rejected outright. It was a real slap in the face.
What does that tell us? That, unlike the Bolsheviks, the SRs were not a leaderist party, remaining a more collectivist force?
Democrats are generally less inclined to leaderism, and this was fully borne out by the SRs. This does not mean there were no authoritarians among the SRs. It was another matter that the leaders had to adapt to the moods and ideas of the revolutionary milieu, to the subculture of the Russian revolutionary movement. The notions of decentralization, self-reliance, and independence fromthe leadership were quite strong in the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Initially, they had a sort of collective leadership. At various times, it consisted of different people, usually three or four people. Plus, we have to speak here of three or four generations of SRs. The first generation had been been members of the People’s Will, while the last generation joined the party in 1923–24. Meaning, we are looking at a fairly complicated picture. But generally, yes, there was no single leader. Many historians and contemporaries were of the opinion this was a cause of the failure of the SRs in 1917. Chernov argued that if Gots and Grigory Gershuni had still been alive, the three of them could have led the party in 1917. Gershuni was highly charismatic, even more charismatic than Lenin, and perhaps he would have had a chance to keep the party under control. On the one hand, there is a certain point to these hypotheses, but we have to consider the weakness and division existing within the party at the time of the revolution, in particular, the strong differences between the SRs on the issue of the war. Very many people regarded Chernov as a good theorist, but not as a leader and organizer. However, he had the outstanding ability to reconcile different points of view, and he played a unifying role. His opponents dubbed him the “universal bandage.”
Let’s try and sum up. Should we regard the SRs as a failed historical alternative to Bolshevism? Or, given their looseness and perennial internal division, did the SRs nevertheless lack the strength, ideas, and people to lay claim to a truly great historical role?
I think that victory in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, in which they received a plurality and, in fact, adopted the first two laws, including the law socializing land ownership, were in fact the beginnings of a democratic alternative, an SR alternative. Would they have been able to lead the country down this road? I support the viewpoint of my German colleague Manfred Hildermeier, who as early as 1992 wrote in an article that, since one of Russian’s main problems was the huge gap between city and country, the SRs were well suited to play the role of a party voicing the interests of the peasantry, proletariat, and intelligentsia. I would also add we should not exaggerate the extreme peasantness of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. If you look at their program, you see they attempted to unite a European conception of socialism with certain nativist ideas. They argued that the peasantry’s skull was no worse than the skulls of the proletariat and intelligentsia, and was quite capable of taking the ideas of socialism on board. It was one of the first attempts in the world to fuse European values and ideas of modernization with the values of a traditional society, to merge a significant part of the Russian peasantry into the new society as painlessly as possible. The SRs assumed that for many decades to come progress would follow the bourgeois path and there would be a market economy: socialism would not soon emerge. In this sense, they were evolutionists. They were essentially the first to propose an idea that is currently quite fashionable around the world, the idea of peripheral capitalism, according to which capitalism in developed countries and capitalism in second-tier and third-tier countries are completely different things. In peripheral capitalist countries, including Russia, capitalism shows it most predatory features and is the most destructive.
The SRs also argued the Russian people were definitely capable of adapting to democracy. Moreover, they thought that the Russian traditions of liberty and community self-government afforded an opportunity for magnificent democratic progress as such. The SRs wanted to unlock the people’s democratic collectivist potential. By the way, they did not idealize the peasant commune, arguing it had to be transformed, of course. They counted on the cooperative movement, which had progressed quite powerfully in early twentieth-century Russia. It was entirely under the ideological leadership of the SRs. They believed it was necessary to rely on the working peasant economy. It would then be possible to modernize the country and eventually follow a socialist path. The main thing was that despite a certain utopianism to their views, the SRs were capable of evolving, of course. Another important thing was that the SRs, more than the other parties, were capable of acting as a venue for reconciling different interests. This is basically the road European social democracy took. However, the party’s looseness and internal conflicts were important features of its history. I think that sooner or later the Socialist Revolutionary Part would definitely have split into several parties. If we speak of the SRs as a democratic alternative, then the Maximalists and Left SRs do not fit this bill. Unlike the other SRs, they cannot be considered adherents of democratic socialism. By the way, the SRs and Mensheviks used this term quite vigorously from the 1920s onwards. Later, in the mid twentieth century, the European socialist parties would also speak of democratic socialist values. From this perspective, some SRs and Mensheviks were, undoubtedly, adherents of democratic socialism, which gave rise to the Socialist International.
The demise of the Socialist Revolutionary Party was tragic. During the Russian Civil War, the SRs finally split. The Right SRs were involved in the anti-Bolshevik movement, while the Left SRs tended to collaborate with the Bolsheviks. In the summer of 1918, however, finally convinced that Lenin and his entourage were taking Russia down the road to dictatorship, the Left SRs undertook a failed attempt to overthrow “commissarocracy,” their term for the Communist regime. In the 1920s, the party was finally finished off. In the summer of 1922, twelve SR leaders were sentenced to death at a special trial. The executions, however, were postponed, turning the convicts into hostages in case the remnants of the Socialist Revolutionary Party decided to return to its terrorist methods, now against the Communist regime. One SR leader, Yevgeniya Ratner, was held in prison with her young son, causing her to complain to Dzerzhinsky. Subsequently, their death sentences were commuted to various terms of imprisonment and exile. Most prominent SRs who stayed in Russia were victims of the Stalinist crackdowns. Several former SRs, including Maria Spiridonova and her husband Ilya Mayorov, were among those massacred in the Medvedev Forest, outside Orlyov, in September 1941.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up